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Supply Chain News: Elon Musk's Plans for Electric Semi-Trucks - Bold New Strategy, or Hopeless Pipe Dream?


Musk Tweet Says Electric Truck will be Unveiled this September, but Challenges Seem High

April 18, 2017
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Elon Musk is certainly a man on the move, trying to ramp up production of electric cars at Telsa, dabbling in something called the hyperloop for transporting people and perhaps cargo at incredible speeds, and shooting rockets into the sky with his Spacex aerospace company.

In his spare time, Musk is looking to take the battery powered vehicle market to even bolder levels, promising in a single tweet last week that Telsa was planning to introduce a new semi-truck in September, with an electric pickup truck to follow in about 18 to 24 months.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

Jack Stewart of Wired magazine notes that tractor-trailers are big enough to hold the giant battery pack that would be required to move 80,000 pounds of truck and cargo.

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"Tesla semi truck unveil set for September. Team has done an amazing job. Seriously next level." Musk tweeted last Thursday.

Exactly how big the truck will be is unclear, as is what "unveiled" really means relative to September. A Tesla spokesperson confirmed there would be no additional information beyond what was in the Musk tweet. However, the Tesla "master plan" released last July noted that, "We believe the Tesla semi will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate."

All this is in turn is part of Monk's grand plan to save the planet from carbon emissions.

There would seem to be many challenges to the idea, however.

Tesla's "likelihood of success in the commercial truck market" is far lower than in the auto market, Michael Baudendistel, an analyst who follows truck makers for Wall Street investment firm Stifel, wrote in a research note shortly after the news. (SCDigest will note Tesla "success" thus far in the car market is dubious at best.)


Baudendistel cited "a litany of significant issues," starting of course with battery weight and range. Tesla's electric cars only go a few hundred miles at best on a full charge - it's hard to imagine how that will be improved for a freight truck full of cargo that will be heavier by some 20 times.

Compare that to a class 8 truck today that can hold as much as 300 gallons of diesel fuel and travel 1,400 miles before refueling.

Other issues cited by Baudendistel include:

• Price: "Tesla cars don't need to prove an economic case to their buyers; Tesla trucks will." The vast majority of heavy duty trucks are managed by small carriers that simply cannot survive a bar economic deal - and won't take it. Nearly 91% of US trucking firms operate with six or fewer trucks.

Service and maintenance: "This has been an inconvenience for Tesla cars. For trucks though, if the wheels ain't turnin', you ain't earnin'," Baudendistel wrote.

Fueling infrastructure: "You can't put the cart before the horse," Baudendistel said, noting battery recharging is slow while battery swapping is expensive and adds many logistical challenges.


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But some others are less pessimistic.

Jack Stewart of Wired magazine notes that tractor-trailers are big enough to hold the giant battery pack that would be required to move 80,000 pounds of truck and cargo.

"The frame of a semi is essentially a pair of long steel rails, which could easily support a battery pack (which also could go behind the cab)," Stewart writes. "Ditching the internal combustion engine saves more space, and lets you use smaller motors on each axle or even each wheel. Electric motors provide oceans of torque, improving acceleration and pulling power, and slinging the battery and motors between the frame rails lowers the center of gravity, improving handling. Tidier packaging increases aerodynamic efficiency, which squeezes more range from the battery."

We're thinking it won't be quite that easy.

In fact, Stewart talked to CEO of a company called Nikola Motor Co., which is trying to build freight trucks powered by hydrogen cells, who estimated the Tesla semis will only have a range of 200-300 miles - which means they just won't work for long haul carriage, though it might be OK for drayage operations, local delivery, maybe even some LTL routes.

Stewart notes that using electrics for drayage of containers around ports will likely get governmental support, given many ports, especially Los Angles and Long Beach, have been fretting about CO2 emissions for years.

Tesla isn't the only company looking at zero-emissions trucks. In addition to Salt Lake City-based start-up Nikola, Toyota is working on a similar fuel cell concept. Daimler AG, the parent of truck makers Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner, showed off a prototype battery truck last November. But it would support a maximum 124 miles per charge, limiting its use to local deliveries.

Can Tesla make an electric semi truck work? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


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